[Editor’s note: On Wednesday, the French Press Agency reported that Asia Bibi has been released from prison and transferred to a secret location. This story will be updated.]
Perhaps it’s only fitting that a landmark legal ruling announced in Pakistan on Halloween day, acquitting a Christian woman who’d spent a decade on death row awaiting execution over a blasphemy charge, seemingly has triggered a horror show for the woman and her family.
A week after the country’s Supreme Court absolved 47-year-old Asia Bibi, dismissing the case against her as “nothing short of concoction incarnate,” and ordered her immediate release, Bibi remains under lockdown in the same Pakistani prison over what authorities describe as fear for her life should she exit the prison doors.
Make no mistake, those fears aren’t a fantasy: According to one national survey, at least ten million Pakistanis say they would be willing to kill Bibi with their bare hands, either out of religious conviction, for the money, or both. A Pakistani mullah offered a reward of roughly $10,000 to anyone who kills her, either inside the prison or outside.
CNN reported Monday that the Pakistani army and intelligence services have jurisdiction over the jail and are in charge of Bibi’s safety, and have installed extra surveillance cameras at the jail while any individuals entering or leaving are searched, including those charged with preparing Bibi’s food, according to a police source.
As part of a deal with the Islamist movement Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) to end large street protests in Islamabad and Lahore that broke out after the acquittal, the government agreed not to oppose a TLP bid to add Bibi to a list preventing her from leaving the country.
In effect, if she can’t leave Pakistan and she can’t be safe inside the country, it’s hard to know in the short term how Bibi will ever breathe fresh air.
Meanwhile, after several days spent in hiding, Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, also surfaced on Monday to issue a dramatic appeal to the Italian government, speaking through the papal foundation Aid to the Church in Need, to get them out of Pakistan, fearing the inevitability of reprisals on the family if they remain.
On Tuesday, Italy’s Foreign Minister Matteo Salvini, widely recognized as the most powerful figure in the country’s populist government, that “I will do everything humanly possible” to bring Bibi to Italy and grant her asylum. He said Italy is also working “discreetly” with other Western governments to make that possible.
Masih spoke briefly Monday to Alessandro Monteduro, director of Aid to the Church in Need in Italy.
“They’re living in hiding, in a marginal zone of Pakistan, and they can’t count on any particular network of support,” Monteduro said in an interview with the Vatican’s official news site, Vatican News.
“He stressed to us that they’re afraid, and are also having difficulty obtaining food, which was already a problem for Christians,” he said.
Monteduro described the situation facing Christians in the country after Wednesday’s ruling was announced.
“For four days, all the Christians stayed inside, enclosed in their homes in the principal cities of Pakistan,” he said. “Only yesterday did they start to go out. The situation was one of objective terror.”
“Right now, the international diplomacy of national governments and international institutions needs to act,” Monteduro said. “I truly can’t imagine what it would mean for Asia Bibi to leave prison under these circumstances, without a strong, concrete political will” [to protect her].
Meanwhile, several leading Islamic clerics and authorities have weighed in to defend the Supreme Court decision. Mufti Akeel Pirzada, president of the “Council of the Ulema for Peace,” was interviewed on the Catholic news site Asia News.
“The decision of the Supreme Court of Pakistan to absolve Asia Bibi is notable and gives a message to the whole world: Justice exists in Pakistan, for all citizens, independently of religion, culture and ethnicity,” Pirzada said.
Religious freedom advocates have focused for decades on the struggle to eliminate “blasphemy laws” in various parts of the world, which experts say often function as a way for the majority religious tradition to inflict payback and exert control on minorities. Under Pakistan’s penal code, the offense of blasphemy is punishable by death or life imprisonment.
According to an analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, as of 2011 nearly half the countries in the world, 47 percent, have laws or policies that criminalize apostasy, blasphemy, or defamation of religion. Anti-apostasy and anti-blasphemy laws tend to be most common in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia Pacific.
Where does this leave things?
Needless to say, it would be tragic if Bibi got within a hair’s breath of freedom, only to be forced to remain behind bars indefinitely for her own safety. It would also be a stunning turn-around for the growing international network of activists and organizations working to combat the globe’s rising tide of anti-Christian persecution.
This was to be their signature breakthrough – an illustration that sustained international pressure, in combination with the help of moderates on the ground, can make a difference. Now, all that seems up for grabs.
On Monday, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan wrapped up a four-day visit to China in search of expanded financial support for his country’s troubled economy, apparently walking away without any concrete new commitments. While it’s unlikely that China would raise the Bibi case in those talks, given its stated prime directive of non-interference in the affairs of countries with which they strike deals, you’d certainly like to believe other global actors would be stepping up.
Pakistan recently received a $6 billion aid package from Saudi Arabia but wants more external financing to avert a balance of payments crisis before approaching the International Monetary Fund. That may create an opportunity for the international community to get Pakistan’s attention.
However it plays out, one hopes that same network that carried the Bibi case to this point will stay on it and see the job through — and, needless to say, will do so with the backing of the Vatican’s diplomatic team. A great deal is riding on it, beginning with the fate of a simple Punjabi Catholic family that never asked to be anyone’s symbol, but today finds themselves precisely that.